On a frigid night in a big Southern city, it was a relief to revel in the summer antics of a small Southern town. Theatre Charlotte’s rendition of “The Miss Firecraker Contest” benefits from a strong ensemble cast and Tonya Bludsworth’s deft direction. This off-Broadway dramedy, written by Pulitzer winner Beth Henley, is a quirky adult coming-of-age story filled with grace and self-awareness.
Glynnis O’Donoghue plays Carnelle Scott, an orphan who is reunited with cousins with whom she was raised just as she is training to compete in the Miss Firecracker contest. Her goal is win the crown, which she believes will redeem the fast-girl reputation that left her with the nickname “Miss Hot Tamale.”
She has dyed her hair a fiery red and is working feverishly on her “Star-Spangled Banner” tap dance. She has also hired seamstress Popeye Jackson to ensure that her costume is fabulous. Meanwhile, her well-heeled cousin Elain, who won the Miss Firecracker Contest when she was 17, shows up at the homestead, seeking respite from her seemingly successful marriage. What Elain really seeks is her bygone youth and popularity.
Simultaneously, Elain’s brother Delmount, renounced for his “checkered past,” returns home after a stint at the mental institution. Carnelle is surrounded by mixed-up, well-meaning people, who claim to love her but are too wrapped up in their own confusion to be very supportive.
The play threatens to sink into cliché and mediocrity, but it doesn’t. Amy Wada’s Popeye and O’Donoghue’s Carnelle lead the cast out of emotional pitfalls toward relevance. Popeye falls in love with Demount before she ever meets him. She is astute and sincere, and Wada delivers her lines with an endearing, offhand abandon. While cynicism is rife among the other characters, Popeye doesn’t question her emotions. They are simple, they are true, they are a gift of grace.
Michelle Fleshman plays Elain. Her husband loves her, but she has the residual unhappiness that lingers in women who believe their mothers didn’t really love them. She is very funny, particularly when dismissing her own responsibility as a mother. Berry Newkirk plays Delmount, a strange, disenfranchised fellow who has a history of stalking women who sport a singular classical feature he finds attractive. He is reluctantly drawn to the unconditional love offered by the adoring Popeye.
Costume Designer Lena Olson characterizes people with color. In the opening act, Carnelle’s fuchsia tights, purple leg warmers and royal blue leotard express both desperation and confidence. Elain’s costumes range from a lovely, form-fitting flowered dress to a dreamy, pale pink gown with a subtle ruffle down the front, reflecting her identification as a beauty queen. Popeye wears formless gingham dresses straight from “Little House on the Prairie,” which accentuate the appeal of her unassuming personality.
While the plot revolves around the contest, all the action in Act 1 happens inside the house. Act 2 takes place backstage at the contest grounds. The Miss Firecracker Contest is a catalyst around which characters seek to come home, define who they are and make peace with their pasts. When the lights came down on the final scene Saturday, the audience let out a collective “ahhhh.” What a lovely end to a charming evening.
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